It’s seven years since the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch made its debut in Edinburgh, and it’s still one of the best pieces of theatre you will ever see.
The story, based on writer Gregory Burke’s interviews with former soldiers from the Fife regiment who served in Iraq, is told with a brutal honesty.
The men were lured away from the boredom of Fife with the excitement of guns, the promise of admiration from girls who love a soldier, the prospect of playing footie with your mates on sunny foreign lands, and a steady job and income.
But if they were bored in Fife, they were equally bored in Iraq, but placed in a foreign land where all is unfamiliar, unpredictable and dangerous. With expletive-laden dialogue, there’s no glamour. War isn’t romanticized.
There’s a lot of hanging around, waiting in the searing dusty heat. They have time and they have questions. Ultimately it’s not the job they signed up for. To pass the boredom there’s in-fighting and chat about food they miss from home, as one soldier relays the mundane minutiae of his local Chinese takeaway menu.
It’s hard to imagine two more differing worlds, than that of Fife and Iraq and the stage continually transitioned seamlessly between the two. Every prop was used to great effect and there’s the most surprising and innovate uses for a pool table you will ever see. The dialogue is brutally funny, brash and vulgar. One of the most entertaining characters is the pompous and blustering Lord Elgin, and an excellent performance by Stephen McCole.
But cut through the swearing, bravado, and in-fighting boredom, and suddenly one scene sneaks up like a stealth bomber to assault your emotions. The soldiers receive letters from home – the dialogue is redundant. The brash words replaced by silence as each soldier conveys their words and emotions by gentle hand and arm movements. The well-placed music of Yann Tiersen heightens this already tender moment, which renders the audience silent and thoughtful.
Music is put to brilliant effect all during the play and also includes The Flowers of the Forest played live on bagpipes and music from Davey Anderson including the Gallant Forty Twa.
Directed by John Tiffany, the play has won 22 awards and played to more than 212,000 people. The 12 strong cast of this production features outstanding performances, particularly from Scott Fletcher as Kenzie, Robert Jack as Sergeant and Stuart Martin as Cammy.
The choreography from Steven Hoggett is visually stunning, with a brilliant display of the proud regiment’s roots told through a series of cleverly orchestrated costume changes on stage.
And an interesting contrast was that of seemingly putting battle to ballet.
The subtleties of movement and dance were almost balletic in their approach, and they were used to dramatic effect to show macho aggressiveness and fighting.
By the final scene there was another battle, that of trying desperately to hold on, with a choreographed finale of tenderness, friendship, caring, as well as sheer exhaustion, futility and sadness.
With Davey Anderson’s Parade played to a swelling swirl of bagpipes, the soldiers proudly and resolutely march side by side. Then with increasing fervour, comes the fighting, the falling, the exhaustion, the picking up, the carrying on, the fighting, the falling …
It’s beautiful, balletic, and amazingly powerful. This scene will stay etched in your mind … and heart for a long time after.
The show is now touring at Norfolk and Norwich Festival before moving to Seattle and San Francisco.
For more information see: National Theatre of Scotland website